In late summer, Ryan Lucich was still unpacking boxes at his new office at Schreiner University, where he had recently joined the staff to lead the school’s relatively new esports team.
It is both new and familiar territory for Lucich. Just a year removed from his career as a player at Texas Tech, he is coaching a Schreiner program that, in its third year of existence, is part of a growing number of competitive teams of collegiate video gamers, some of whom have qualified for scholarships just like their counterparts in traditional sports.
“In terms of growth, it’s just really exploded,” Lucich says of collegiate esports. “I think the first varsity program was Robert Morris University back in 2014, and now, just about five years later, there’s over 150. It’s really crazy how fast it’s happened.”
Most of those programs, including Schreiner’s, are part of the growing National Association of Collegiate Esports, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association recognizes some of them. Schools embracing esports range in size and stature from the likes of Union Community College in New Jersey to major universities such as Boise State University and The Ohio State University.
Schreiner sophomore psychology major Matthew Mize is one of around 35 students who are part of the Mountaineers esports team. He participates in Overwatch, which is among the games Schreiner’s team plays. Others are League of Legends, Fortnite and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate.
Mize is also among a wave of students in colleges and universities across the country who are eligible to receive scholarship money for their video gaming abilities. Lucich said he has about $40,000 he can offer to his players and other students who fill auxiliary roles, such as internet streamers and “shoutcasters” for live online broadcasts.
For Mize, a Lakehills native, the recruiting process was pretty simple. He knew Schreiner’s former coach, and after a tryout he joined the Overwatch team as a freshman. “A lot of schools are going through things where they’re trying to identify kids and trying to find out the avenues where, what and who they can recruit,” Mize says. “It’s definitely growing.”
Like the popular Fortnite and League of Legends, Overwatch is a cooperative game with teammates working together. “It’s a team-based game, and I play a healer,” Mize says. “That’s what I mostly like about it — I can help my teammates do better if I do well.”
Lucich says the spirit of teamwork is the same as with traditional collegiate team sports like soccer, football or basketball, and he believes the communication skills his players use — and those he gained as a player — will help the participants in their lives and careers.
“In terms of the team play itself, I think esports requires a lot more vocal communication,” Lucich says. “Whereas in football you might have hand signals, esports requires a lot more talking to be successful, especially in some of these really complex games. As far as competing, some of the esports titles are a lot more complicated and harder to get into, which means it takes a lot more time to develop strategies.”
There are other similarities as well. “With each of our teams, we have one day a week dedicated to just meeting for half of it,” Lucich says. “It’s like a video review. Then the other half is a discussion over strategy. We might scout our opponents, so in a sense, it’s very similar to traditional sports and kind of what I did in football in high school.”
As its third year of esports competition begins, the Schreiner team is moving from its former gaming facility, “The Bunker,” into a brand-new arena where the team now practices and competes. This past April, Schreiner hosted the inaugural SCAC Showdown, welcoming other esports teams from the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference in connection with the school’s annual Pop Con pop culture convention.
In a press release leading up to the event, SCAC Commissioner Dwayne Hanberry says that “although esports is not yet considered a varsity sport, we are excited to utilize the conference umbrella to provide another extracurricular opportunity for SCAC students to compete. Our goal at the conference office is to assist our membership in creating memorable experiences for students. We believe this event is another avenue to do that and with a segment of students who perhaps don’t get that opportunity in what would be considered the traditional athletic arena.”
CONNECTION IS EVERYTHING
Lucich began his coaching career by working with high school players looking for the same opportunities Mize and his teammates have at Schreiner.
Like members of NACE, high schools around the country are also starting esports teams, giving gamers a chance to compete together. Regardless of whether the players are college or high school students, casual gamers or professionals, they all rely on fast and reliable internet connectivity.
“Connection is everything,” Lucich says. “It’s one of the most important things both in practice and even more so in matches, because if you’re practicing on unreliable internet, you don’t get the correct environment that will better prepare you for your matches.”
The growing collegiate esports landscape, which is reflective of a growing culture of video gamers, gave Lucich an unexpected career path as well as lifelong friends. He says he is hoping his players have experiences similar to those he had as a player at Texas Tech. “I really loved it,” he says. “I’ve always been an extremely competitive person, but I was also very shy. Going into college, I was really nervous about making new friends.”
The League of Legends game provided Lucich a competitive and social outlet. He made the Texas Tech team along with three other sophomores. The roster stayed essentially the same for three years, he says. “It was a really great experience” Lucich recalls. “We all became very close. Playing on that team, it really did feel like family. To this day, they’re still probably my best friends. We talk and play games together pretty much every day.”